What is Whole Food?

You know that you’re supposed to eat whole food, but there’s a bit of confusion out there around what it exactly. Do you know why it’s so important?

When I ask my clients about it they say, “Sure, I eat whole wheat pasta,…I eat organic,…I shop at Whole Foods.”

While whole food my be organic, organic food isn’t necessarily whole.

Shopping at Whole Foods means that you are more likely to find items that are locally or sustainably grown, that are fair trade and made from healthier ingredients, however, this is only part of the whole picture.

Whole food is as close as possible to its natural state when you eat it.

  • Nothing (or very little) taken away – you might still need to peel or hull or skin/scale certain foods.
  • Nothing (or very little) added to it, not counting the lovely flavours we add to enhance a dish, preferably whole in themselves.
  • Not altered (or very little). You might need to cook (meat), ferment (soy) or add minerals (corn) to make certain foods digestible or to access the nutrients. You might need to dry, salt or ferment it to preserve it through the winter.

Using that definition, we can look at what foods we commonly eat along a spectrum from whole to processed:

Wheat berries – stone-ground whole wheat flour products – unbleached flour products – white flour products

(Whole has nothing to do with gluten or lack thereof: Brown rice – white rice – brown rice flour products – white rice flour products)

Meat is tricky because we rarely eat the whole animal, maybe a fish or small poultry  – sticking to chicken breasts only is a partial food – processed meat products are made from parts as well and have lots added to them.

That said, you can eat the entirety of a larger animal over a season, especially when you make bone broth and eat the marrow and the organs.

Egg – egg yolk/white – dehydrated eggs

Fresh whole milk – pasteurized/homogenized whole milk – 2%/skim/cream – powdered milk

A no-brainer whole food choice would be fresh vegetables and fruit. Eat more of those, and you’re golden.


Whole food is what was traditionally called, well, food.

Whole food is the opposite of many of the food-like products we find in the middle aisles of our grocery stores: refined and processed items. That is, It’s lower in the stuff that Health Canada tell us to avoid: added sugar, excess sodium and poor quality fats.

Now, many modern food have been formulated to include missing nutrients.

In terms of straight nutritional value, whole food provides a better profile of nutrients.  It’s naturally higher in the all the nutrients we need: fibre, minerals & vitamins, protein, essential fatty acids.

Whole food contains all the nutrients you need to digest, assimilate and effectively metabolise the core ingredients. It’s pure logic.

Take wheat again as an example: It contains a good store of starch – the carbohydrates we use for energy – as well as the B-vitamins, minerals, protein, fat and fibre we need to efficiently absorb and use that energy.

Strip away the bran & the germ to make pretty white flour and you’re left with straight starch – the “bad” carbs you are trying so hard to avoid these days. The impact of straight, refined starch (sugar) on weight, blood sugar levels and hormone balance is well-documented.

The commercial benefit of white flour is that it won’t go rancid because they’ve taken out the (good) fats. If you ask me, though, food that doesn’t go bad is a food devoid of life. The essence, the life-energy, has been stripped from the grain (for more on this concept, see this post on Fats).


Whole food has vitality, it’s got the energy you crave.

The vibration produced by the living aspect of the plant is what actually feeds and helps your organism stay alive.

As time went on in the modern food era, nutritional scientists gradually realised the folly of refining grains, when pellagra and other deficiency diseases reared their heads. To their credit, they started to “enrich” the flour with synthetic or extracted forms of some of the very same vitamins & minerals they had removed in refining.

What about the stuff they don’t replace? We’re all scrambling around trying to access it in other ways…can you say omega-3 supplement?

Without going on too long about it, this herbal example beautifully illustrates my point as well: Willow bark is a traditional remedy for headaches and fever. It’s active ingredient, salicylic acid, was researched, extracted and sold in a pill: aspirin. Trouble is, aspirin wreaks havoc on the stomach. Willow bark, however, has no such side effect because it contains other substances that work symbiotically with the active acid.


Whole foods are part of your body’s history.

Among those of us who grew up from the late 50s through the early 90s, I’ve had many conversations around “How did we ever survive?” We of the Alpha-Bits and Chef-Boyardee, Tang and McDonald’s generations. Sure, we survived, but did we thrive? We of the chronic-diseases-like-never-before generation.

From the body’s perspective, we’ve been asking it to deal with products that don’t resemble the fare our organs evolved to recognise and digest. To that end, we lack enzymes to metabolise certain foods. In some cases like dairy, not knowing what to do with it, the body either pockets it away in our tissue (joints and breasts, in particular), or it feeds the pathogenic bacteria in our digestive tract, or the body mounts an inappropriate immune response (allergies and auto-immune disease).

How can something nourish you if you can’t even access the nutrients?

Is the long-term poor nutrition perhaps the reason why we’re all desperately loading up on superfoods and supplements – food that over-compensates for the nutritional gaps we had growing up?


Here’s a thought:

We were the generation raised on the standard North-American fare: processed (convenient), fast and altered food.

We’re also the generation that walks around talking about “not being enough” – not smart enough, not thin enough, not rich enough, not creative enough, not healthy enough,…

My husband calls us the searchers: perpetually looking for the purpose, the career, the diet, the guru, the man/woman that will solve all our problems…that will make us feel enough. That will make us feel whole.

Could it be that we’re feeling this way because we are, in fact, lacking in some way? That by refining away and destroying nutrients – the essence of the food we’d been eating for years (during our formative years at that) – we are indeed undernourished? Lacking in a way that goes much deeper that the nutrient itself?


The solution? Eat whole food.

Eat colour – this is where the plant world stocks up all those antioxidants, the immune system of the plant. Convenience: buy the items pre-cut.

Eat fresh – avoid anything without a best before date, or anything that doesn’t expire until next year. Convenience: frozen vegetables; canned beans or fish (rinse them well to reduce the salt)

Eat what your grandmother cooked. As a bonus prepare it the way she did. (The true bonus is the way she enriched all her meals with love.)


Now it’s your turn: Do you feel your body’s been deprived from eating less-than-optimal food? What do you do to make up the difference? When you share in the comments, you open the possibilities for others.

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12 thoughts on “What is Whole Food?

  1. Pingback: The Magic Wand for Eating Right - Whole HealthWhole Health

  2. I just love this.

    I love the statement “Whole food is what was traditionally called, well, food.”

    The educative process of this blog is immense – thank you for sharing xx

  3. I love this.

    I’m a pretty busy person, raised 4 kids, so convenience has always been a big part of how I eat. The past few years I simply don’t FEEL great if I eat too much processed crap, it’s like my body decided ENOUGH!

    Coulda woulda shoulda, wish I wised up sooner. Thanks for the great tips!

    • We could wish that about a lot of things in life, Karen. All we can do is start from now, and forgive yourself as necessary for before. We didn’t know any better…thank goodness your body is calling you on it now!

  4. such an interesting perspective, cathy! that we are a generation of lack searching to be “whole” and that, perhaps, it is so because we are literally undernourished. wonderful article – thank you.

    • I completely agree! Food changes you at a cellular level. Cells are made out of energy. We are changing our energy as we change our food intake. Everything is related.

  5. I also agree that what we choose to eat directly correlates to how we feel. When we eat fresh, whole foods our bodies tend to function at a higher level. Thank you for the thought of eating what our grandmothers used to cook because it reminds me of what food was like before all of the preservatives.

  6. Whole foods.. yep. Why have an extract of pomegranate when the whole fruit is so much more!! My mum, in her 70s still cooks fresh food from scratch daily, I really grateful to see that and it’s what is normal to me. We never had processed food/ready meals so I never buy them either. However, it so so easy to be steered off track for convenience, and flavour and fun!! so there has to be a mindful practice when we shop. 80-20 rule 🙂 Thanks for this.

  7. Interesting to consider that for all the processed, half foods we eat, that we as a generation are constantly in “lack”. I too, am a huge advocate for eating real, whole foods. it is funny how people actually get scared when you mention the words “whole milk” or “full fat yogurt” like it is poison. Hopefully we get back to that way of thinking!

  8. You know, it’s funny, I just was tested for foods as I showed up as having an intolerance…and for the first time in 20 years, my body asked for milk… not dairy or yogurt or anything, just milk. The tester and I were so interested as it’s also very unusual for only milk in dairy to come up… but I’ve been craving milk…. maybe the calcium or something…anyways, for the first time in 20 years, I added organic milk into my world…and you know, my body feels better.

    I think we get so wrapped up in ‘shoulds’ etc, we forget to just eat what we are suppose to eat.

    I’m glad you wrote this. And as I travel through the next 3 months of food intolerance diet 😉 … which is really what I eat anyways…. except for the milk!!! … I will say to myself… colour, fresh and grandmother.

    Awesome article and so timely for me 🙂

    Oh and I was just thinking about what you said above about how did we survive…the 50 -90’s crowd. For me, I just think it wasn’t ‘as processed’ I mean, even the chicken we bought was not what it is today… so maybe being the first in those things, it was still a little healthier than today… because we also ate more whole foods too. Today… so many just eat those things… So much to talk about eh!..>

    Thanks for a great article.

    • Isn’t it interesting how our needs and tastes and intolerances change over time. I agree that we ate a good variety of whole food among the novelty items. It startles me to see how much the novelty items have become the norm when I look in things like kids’ lunch boxes… Yes, we could go on about any and all of this…

    • Yes, Elizabeth, there are other ways that we balanced the processed food at the time, and ways we do it now…not always just about food. Belief systems and attitude help a lot, regardless of what we eat.

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